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Hibernate With Carbs To Manage Seasonal Affective Disorder

pasta, plate, dough

It’s that time of year again. Fall brings brightly colored leaves and, for many who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), dark and dreary moods. The signs of SAD may be subtle at first, but the earlier sunrises and sunsets can make legitimate changes to your mood, energy levels, appetite, and overall interest in normal activities.  Fatigue and a strong craving for carbs, especially sweet options, even for those who are unaccustomed to experiencing such cravings, are among the first signs of SAD.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

While in the past, some people attributed SAD to lingering effects of a cold or flu virus and the desire to consume more calories to the body’s need for more sustenance in cold weather, science points to a lack of sun for creating these seasonal behavior changes. Something happens to our brains, resulting in symptoms of depression. Some posit that biological clocks or circadian rhythms are thrown off by the decrease in sunlight. Others point to a change in the body’s melatonin levels.

Who Experiences SAD?

Roughly 6% of the U.S. population experiences SAD and another 14% experience a milder version, often referred to as the “winter blues.” SAD symptoms can greatly decrease quality of life for several months. The most common symptoms include feeling tired all the time, wanting to sleep as much as possible, gaining weight, feeling irritable, foggy-headedness and a lack of interest in work or social activities. Even the most active and social among us find themselves making excuses to avoid attending events and gatherings, although in 2020, COVID-19 has resulted in fewer social pressures to show up. While these symptoms disappear by mid-Spring, they can be disruptive and at times debilitating.

Effective SAD Treatments

A popular treatment for SAD has been light therapy. SAD sufferers use these small boxes that emit either a full-spectrum or blue light daily, during the early morning hours for about 20-40 minutes. For those who live in perpetually cloudy locations like Portland or Seattle, these treatments may be used year-round.  

Melatonin is not the only culprit involved in SAD. The early and ongoing carbohydrate cravings suggest that the mood and appetite changes associated with SAD may be due to inadequate serotonin activity.  This link was discovered among people who snack on carbohydrates when their mood dips each afternoon and among women who have carb cravings due to PMS. In separate studies we found that both groups’ moods significantly improved after consuming carbs in a disguised form, so they were not aware of what they were eating. This mood improvement was caused by serotonin synthesis in the brain after carbs were consumed.

Eating sweet and/or starchy carbs may be an effective way to manage SAD.  Dr. David Mischoulon, a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, myself and several other colleagues conducted a study at the clinical research center at MIT to see if eating carb snacks might relieve some of the symptoms of SAD. Our positive results, published in CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics, suggest that serotonin synthesis from carbohydrate consumption might be the solution.

What To Eat To Increase Your Brain’s Serotonin?

The key is to choose foods that are high in carbohydrate and relatively low in protein. We recommend at least 30 grams of carbs and roughly 120 calories. Keeping protein low when eating carbohydrate to increase serotonin is important, as protein can interfere with serotonin synthesis.  As we suggest in our book The Serotonin Power Diet, snacking on low-fat, low-protein, high carbohydrate foods can boost serotonin in the brain. We suggest snacks such as popcorn, pretzels, cereals like Cheerios or shredded wheat squares, and low-fat biscotti or graham crackers. A carb-packed dinner can also help maintain a positive mood and prevent that sinking feeling as the sun sets.

Years ago, I made a presentation in northern Sweden during the Fall season. During the Q&A after my talk, a man shared that his go-to winter dinner was a potato sandwich. “You see,” he said. “It takes away my tiredness and my wife says it puts me in a better humor.”  Sure, you may not be interested in eating a potato sandwich this winter, but eating your carb of choice can take you out of mental hibernation and help to put you into a better humor, as well.

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